Disclaimers;
It's Joss Whedon's world, I'm just playing with it. If we all play nice together and put the toys back where we found them, everything will be lovely.

This story's rated between a PG and PG-13. No explicit sex, some sensuality, some language, normal levels of slayer-ish violence. Nasties attack, Slayers slay, wackiness ensues. And if the thought of two women(Buffy and Willow in this case) being in love with each other wigs you out, then what are you doing on this web-site anyway?

Classification; Action/Romance

Archives; Let me know, and I'm liable to say yes.

Feedback; give me a happy, and e-mail me at Jim_D_Means@prodigy.net

Synopsis; One year into the future, the Hellmouth is wide open and the vampires have taken
over the Earth. A maimed Buffy travels back through time to stop the unholy bargain which
was responsible for her world's destruction, and help her younger self face the truth about her
feelings for Willow.


The Dying of The Light
Written by Kirayoshi

"Because even her smile looks like a frown.
She's seen her share of devils in this angel town."
--Rob Mullins
"Lullaby"

Chapter One;
One Last Vampire

The drive from Sunnydale to Los Angeles had been without incident, and she muttered a "Thank God for that, although she had stopped believing in God over a year ago. It was difficult to hot-wire the old VW Bug with only one hand, but she had managed. She had to manage; it was the only car she could find on short notice with an automatic shift. Her right arm having been severed six months ago by a vampire that had been a potential boyfriend, a stick shift was out. And she had to get out of Sunnydale. Away from the demons and vampires that had finally conquered the city.

Not that she imagined anywhere else to be different. As far as she was aware, the free human population of planet Earth was one. Herself. Everyone else was a vampire, dead, or lobotomized cattle, bred only for their blood.

Halfway between Sunnydale and LA, she stopped the car, turned off the engine, and just sat there. The numbness had started to wear off, and once she felt the despair return, she knew that she had to stop driving. Once she stopped, she performed what had become her ritual.
She opened her old school book bag, and went through its contents, making sure nothing had disappeared. Silver tipped throwing stars, crossbow with eleven wooden bolts still ready to fire, her favorite stake, Mr. Pointy, all present and accounted for.

In addition, she had a stash of canned foods and dried meats that she had managed to raid from an abandoned supermarket in the back seat. She looked over her shoulder to make sure it was still there. She had made several grocery runs in the last year, each one more hazardous than before. Since vampires had no need for what humans thought of as food, she had a wide assortment to choose from, although there had been no fresh meat, produce or dairy. She would have murdered for a hamburger right about now. Furthermore, some vampires had staked out most of the remaining markets, hoping to catch a surviving human. She once slew to protect others, now she had to slay to simply survive.

From the bag's bottom, she produced a small velvet drawstring pouch. Opening the pouch, she spilled its contents onto the empty passenger seat next to her, and started to sort through them. They were pictures, wallet sized photographs mostly, of those who had meant the most to her. The reasons that she kept patrolling, fighting the darkness that threatened to devour Sunnydale, spitting into the face of Hell. Joyce. Her mother. A fine and strong woman, even if she didn't fully understand her daughter.

Rupert Giles. Her mentor and surrogate father. Stuffy, humorless, stiff as a starched collar, and the finest man she ever knew.

Angel. First love. Tragic loss.

Xander. The clown. Always ready with a jibe or a bad pun, and fiercely loyal.

Cordelia. The prom queen. A bit stuck-up, a bit self-possessed, but as brave as any.

Oz. The musician. The silent one who saw more deeply than most.

Riley. Handsome. Sweet. If only...

Willow. She always came to her photo last.

Willow. The computer hacker, the apprentice Wiccan, the roommate, the best friend she, or anyone, ever had. And more. So much more. If only...

Hot tears started to flow down her cheeks as she looked at her photo. The shoulder length red hair, the piercing green eyes, the sweet smile. She had memorized every expression Willow's face could produce, and there were many. Happy Face, Sad Face, Grossed-Out Face, Big-Puppy- Dog-Eyes Face, and the ever popular Resolve Face. Whenever she saw Willow wearing her Resolve Face, she knew that Willow would win whatever argument they were engaged in at the time. God, she loved that look. God she loved her. And now, out of that love, she had come to Los Angeles, leaving Sunnydale for the last time. All of those people whose photos she carried were dead. They had been turned, shortly after the Hellmouth opened. They had become vampires. And she had been slaying them. Her mother, Giles, the Scooby Gang, all of them. Her battle had been lost, but she could not let them live as monsters. She owed it to the memory of her friends and loved ones to give their souls peace, to end their existence as vampires. So she slew them.

Now, there were two left. Two living in LA. Cordelia Chase and Willow Rosenberg.

And Elizabeth Anne "Buffy" Summers had to slay them.

--------------------------------------------------------------------
One of the things that surprised Buffy about the new vampiric world order was the fact that many amenities of modern life were still maintained. Electric power, gas, radio and television broadcasts, even the Internet. I guess even vampires need to surf the web for cyberbabes, Buffy thought to herself. Naturally, the media had been slanted to fit the needs of vampires, but Buffy still found the information useful.

For instance, a news broadcast several months ago stated that vampires had taken control of most of the factories, foundries and mines around the world, and were stoking their furnaces full blast. Not that they were interested in producing anything but huge black clouds of sooty smoke. By pumping toxic smoke into the atmosphere at a constant rate, they had effectively blocked out the sun. Now the daylight was no obstacle to them. They could operate at any time, twenty-four/ seven. And since they didn't need to breathe like living beings, vampires had no problem with befouling the world which they now ruled.

They also broadcast the live execution of one who had been an enemy of the vampire community, one of their own. Angel. A firing squad of vampires drew their crossbows and impaled him through the heart. On live TV. The night after she slew the vampire that had been Oz(a vampire/ werewolf hybrid, most vicious), Buffy slipped into the blood bar that had been her favorite hangout in Sunnydale, The Bronze, and saw the broadcast. She had to fight back the tears as never before upon seeing her first love gunned down without mercy, while the crowd of vampires that surrounded her laughed and cheered as he died. From that moment on, Buffy knew that it was over. The world no longer belonged to homo sapiens, it belonged to homo sanguinivore. The vampire.

And Buffy had to fight one of the strongest concentrations of vampires in the world, the formerly sunny LA, to ensure her beloved Willow's final rest.

Driving through the city limits of LA, Buffy met with zero resistance. Not so much as a fanged smile. A lot of abandoned cars littered the streets. Buffy was surprised at this development. What's the matter? Don't vampires drive anywhere? She remembered how Spike, once the newly vamped Giles removed the implant that the Initiative gave him, went back to cruising for new blood in a stolen Ford Thunderbird. He nearly knocked her down in that old beater, distracting her enough for Riley to deliver the coup-de-grace with a heavy ax. Her right shoulder socket still twinged in remembered pain from losing the arm. She stopped her car, and stepped out, extending her slayer senses to cover as much ground as possible. The feedback smashing into her brain reminded her of what it must be like to be strapped to the amplifier at a Marilyn Manson concert. Over a million vampires, along with assorted demons, and other nasties, within a one-mile radius of her location. The resulting white noise made it nearly impossible to locate a single vampire. This wasn't trying to find a needle in a haystack, this was trying to find a needle in Nebraska.

"Where are you, Willow?" Buffy whispered to herself.

"Bu-ffy." She turned, startled, at the voice.

The voice whispered on the wind around her. It was sing-song, spooky, eerie. It reminded Buffy of that jump-rope rhyme that echoed throughout the Nightmare on Elm Street movies; One Two, Freddy's after you, Three Four, better shut the door, Five Six, grab your crucifix... ]

Buffy stood, Mr. Pointy in her hand, ready for anything. "Show yourself, bloodsucker, I haven't got all day!" "Bu-ffy." The voice was clearer, more distinct. It was an octave higher than Buffy's voice, soft, light, sweet, almost like... "Willow?" Buffy asked the air around her. "Where are you?" "Where I always am, Buffy," the voice came from right behind her. Buffy spun on her heel, and her eyes locked onto the monster that had once been her best friend in all the world.

Willow was dressed in a black halter top, with a familiar duster jacket draped over her shoulders. "You like it, Buffy?" she asked, modeling her jacket. "I got it from an old friend. After I had him turned into a pile of ashes." She smiled, baring her fangs as she did so, and Buffy blanched in horror, the implications of her statement becoming clear as an unmuddied lake.

"Angel," her voice was a whispered agony. "You set up Angel! You sent him to the firing squad!"

"Duh. Souls are out this year, didn't you know?" As she walked toward Buffy, her eyes, once a bright jade green, now a murky olive color with streaks of blood red, never wavered in their gazing at her one-time friend. Buffy knew that the former wiccan was trying to entrance her, and she had to fight it. C'mon, Buff, just plunge Mr. Pointy into her heart. Let Willow rest. Do it!

But she looked at her friend's eyes, her hair, her face. Forgetting that she was a vampire, Willow was still as beautiful as she ever was. Buffy felt her resolve weaken. She couldn't kill her best friend. And the vampire knew it.

Willow's smile grew larger, more sinister. She slowly strode toward the uncertain slayer. "I'll let you in on a little secret, Buffy. I've always loved you. Not in a best-friends, come-on- over-and- we'll-do-each-other's-hair way, but in a let's-get-naked-and-do-it-on-the-kitchen- floor way. And all this time, I held back, because it seemed so skanky. But you know, it's not skanky at all." Her voice was so soft, so seductive. Buffy found herself loosening her grip on Mr. Pointy. She couldn't do it; Willow was in there. The one she loved more than life itself.

Willow was now inches away from Buffy, her breath hot on the slayer's cheek. "You want me, don't you. Well now you don't have to hold back. It was a good fight, like I said a lifetime ago, but the fight's over. And you want me, as much as I want you." She reached behind Buffy's neck, and took the back of her head in a gentle yet strong hold. She purred as she leaned in for a kiss, a kiss the slayer wanted desperately to happen. Their lips joined in a torturously slow movement, and Buffy's knees turned to water. She knew that she belonged to Willow now. "Faith was right all along, Buffy," Willow whispered. "Want." Her hand found her way to a responsive breast, and Buffy moaned at the contact. "Take." The aroused slayer didn't notice that the vampire had bared her fangs, and was about to sink them into her carotid artery. "Have."

"Have some of this!" A splash of water doused the vampire and her prey. Willow shrieked as though her face was hit by acid. Buffy blinked, the seductive effect of the vampire's mental control suddenly broken, and her mind was her own again. She looked around her, trying to find her unknown benefactor. A lithe figure emerged from the shadows, holding a bucket of water. Holy water, Buffy correctly guessed from Willow's demonic reaction. Buffy looked again at the bucket carrier; long stringy black hair, matted against a battered, beaten yet familiar face. "Cordelia?" She shouted. "You're not a vamp!" Indeed, the very visible crucifix at Cordy's neck gave silent testimony to her humanity. No vampire could wear such a thing.

"What are you waiting for, Slay-girl?" Cordelia shouted. "Stake her!"

Buffy firmed her grip on Mr. Pointy, and charged toward the enraged vampire. The thing's face now wore the bestial contours of a true vampire, gone forever was its human facade. Looking at this fiend, Buffy could think and act more clearly. The vampire screamed, and lunged at Buffy. Buffy ducked, and then charged upward, knocking the monster out at mid- flight. The vampire tumbled, and Buffy jumped on top of her. Pinning the beast with her knees, Buffy rammed the business end of Mr. Pointy into the vampire's festering heart. In a twinkling, it was over. The fiend that at one time been Willow Rosenburg, computer hacker, self-proclaimed `bad-ass wiccan', and best friend, had instantly been transformed into a pile of ash.

Buffy kneeled over the ashes of her one-time friend. She felt barren as the airless wastes of the moon. Not having the strength left to do more than cry for her best friend, that's exactly what she did. Cordelia took Buffy by the shoulders, saying, "Look, Buffy, not to interrupt your moment of grief, but we gotta hightail it."

"Where, Cordy?" Buffy wailed as she turned her tear-streaked face away in despair. "It's over! The good guys lost!"

"Maybe not," Cordy lifted Buffy off of her knees, and forced her to stand. "I knew that you'd be here. I was sent to find you."

"Sent? By who?"

"By the Powers That Be," Cordy tried to explain. "C'mon, there's a church two blocks away from here. If we keep low, we can make it. I'll give you the skinny there." The two women ducked their heads as they made their way across the street. Bloodcurdling howls could be heard around them, which made them quicken their pace. Within a minute, they made it to the front door of the dilapidated church, and Cordy opened the heavy oak door, beckoning Buffy inside.

Once inside, Cordy barred the door with a four-by-four. "They won't come in here, Buffy. I've got the place mined with holy water traps." She pointed to several windows, on which buckets of water were propped. "Besides, there's enough crosses and such to keep them far away from here."

"Good thinking, Cordy," Buffy acknowledged. "But why are you doing this? What do you mean by the Powers that Be?"

"They sent me here," Cordy sat down on a pew, motioning for Buffy to join her. "It's a long story, I'll give you the highlights." As Buffy wearily sat down, Cordelia explained. "Just after Angel left Sunnydale for LA., he hooked up with a half-demon Irishman named Doyle. Doyle, it seems, had been in contact with an otherworldly group called the Powers That Be, and the PTB wanted him to recruit Angel into their cause. Apparently, if Angel did a certain amount of good, the PTB could give him his soul forever, and free him of being a vampire. Doyle helped him, because he could get flashes into the future.

"Shortly after I came to work for Angel, Doyle died. I kinda got close to him, so he gave me his gift to see the future before he died. And let me tell you, Buffy, it's a pain in the rump roast. Anyway, just after that happened, I guess the Hellmouth spilled over or something, because suddenly it's raining vampires."

"Hallelujah," Buffy quipped.

"Yeah. Well, just after Vamp-Willow betrayed Angel, I tried to take a shot at her, but then I got me one of those flashes. I saw you, Buffy. You came to LA And I was to meet you when you got here. So I got away from Wills, and holed up in here. Since then, two people, I guess they were with the PTB, a man and a woman in some weird-ass togas, they came here. They gave me something, and told me to give it to you." She reached behind the pew, and pulled out an object. It was a brass rod, eight inches long, with two copper snakes spiraling around it. "All they told me was that I had to give this to you, and you would know what to do with it once you held it. And I thought Giles could be vague."

Cordy handed Buffy the scepter, and when Buffy held it in her hand, she felt a surge of otherworldly power and knowledge. Images flooded her mind, faces, feelings, objects. The site of Sunnydale High School, after it was destroyed during the Mayor's ascension scheme. Faces of people she loved, and people she hated with a black vengeance. Giles, Xander, Willow, her mom, and...Principal Snyder? And Quentin Travers? The Watcher that forced Giles to betray her during her eighteenth birthday?

And one last vision, of her and Willow. Before she became a vampire, when they were best friends. Studying together, laughing, hanging at the Bronze, holding hands, kissing...Kissing? Buffy blinked at the sight. She never kissed Willow, not that passionately. But as she saw herself surrendering in her friend's arms, something seemed natural about it. It seemed so right, so perfect. Why didn't she see it before? What was that line from `A Christmas Carol', `Are these the shadows of things that will be, or things that may be only?' If this was the `May Be', then Buffy felt the need to jack it up to the `Will Be' column.

With these visions, she felt a great calm. For the first time in years, a peacefulness, a sense of purpose and well-being filled her soul, and she knew what she had to do.

"It's a time-spell, Cordy," Buffy explained. "Don't ask me how, but I know. It's designed to send me back. To the day it happened, to try and change it. I have to do it. I have to go back, I..."

"Stop, Buffy," Cordy interrupted, her nose twitching. "Something smells like..Omigod! Smoke!" Bilious clouds of sooty smoke poured into the windows from outside. Buffy clambered to one relatively clear window, and peered out. "Twenty to thirty vamps," she reported. "All lobbing Molotov cocktails. And these timbers don't look up to regulation. This powder magazine's about to blow! We gotta get out of here"

"Ixnay, Buff," Cordy shouted. "You gotta get out. I'll hold `em off for as long as I can. You have the time spell thingy, use it. Go back, change all this. It's the only way!"

Buffy looked long and hard at her friend. The old Queen C was still in there, still fighting in her own way. "All right, Cordy," Buffy said. She wrapped her arm around Cordy's right shoulder. She then handed her crossbow. "You only got eleven shots in here, make them count."

"Good luck, Slay-girl," Cordy choked back a sob as her friend sought a clear space on the floor, near the altar.

At that moment, the windows crashed, as the vampires and demons poured in. Newbie vamps came in first, taking the brunt of the holy water traps. The more experienced vampires climbed over their suffering bodies, intent on these last two humans in LA. Cordy fired the crossbow, taking out two vamps with three shots, shouting, "That's for Angel!"

Buffy watched this display for a second, knowing that the vampires would soon overwhelm Cordy, there were simply too many of them for her to handle. Shaking her head to concentrate on the task at hand, she closed her eyes, and raised the scepter high above her head as she innately knew she had to do. "Tempus Fugit," she shouted, "Tempus Fragnat!" And she slammed the scepter onto the floor in front of her. At the very moment the scepter made contact with the floor, she saw a vamp sink his fangs into Cordy's neck. She prayed that what she saw would be undone.

Ripples of pure white light flashed from the tip of the scepter as she lifted it off of the floor, engulfing the Slayer rapidly until all she could see was the light. The light didn't blind, instead it seemed to clarify her vision, yet she instinctively shut her eyes against the brightness. When she opened them again, she found herself sprawled out on the street. She looked around her, amazed at what she saw.

She stood outside of Wetherly Park, Sunnydale's favorite vampire trolling ground. It was mid-afternoon, judging by the position of the sun. And there was a sun, which she hadn't seen since the vamps blotted it out with their gray smoke clouds. Buffy felt as though she had run a marathon wearing heavy armor, and her legs protested even the act of standing, but she had to find out when and where she really was. There was only one place she could think to find the answers. Her old home. She ran to the old house, praying that her mother would be there.

Praying that she could undo the hellish future from which she had escaped. And above all else, praying that she would see her Willow again, save her from this terrible fate, and bring her the happiness she so richly deserved.


Chapter two; The Hub of My Rotation

Stevenson Hall; U. C. Sunnydale 3:47 p.m. December 19, 1999

"Turn the dial to zero, honey,
Don't sell the stock, we'll spend all our money,
Starting on a brand new day!

Turn the dial a little way back,
I wonder if she'll take me back,
Thinking in a brand new way.

Turn the dial to zero, sister,
You don't know how much you'll miss her,
Starting on a brand new day.

Turn the dial to zero, boss,
The river's wide, we'll swim across,
Starting on a brand new day!"

"Do my ears deceive me," Buffy joked as she tossed some shirts into her suitcase, "or do sounds of happiness emerge from the boom box of Willow?"

The red-haired computer hacker turned from her packing and looked toward her roommate/best friend/Slayer, answering as she made a rude face, "I extend my tongue in your general direction."

"Some places in SoCal, you can charge $75 dollars for that," Buffy quipped.

"BUFFY SUMMERS!"

"Sorry, Will," Buffy answered, giggling, "I just love making you turn that particular shade of red. Matches your hair."

"That's it, Slayer," Willow Rosenberg shouted gleefully, grabbing the nearest object from her bed that could be used as a weapon, "Throw pillows at ten paces!"

"Hey, hey," Buffy said, trying not to giggle as she made a `Time Out' sign with her hands. "Can we postpone the duel of honor until after we pack? You know, finals done, ready for the winter vacation?"

"Okay, Buff," Willow fake-grumbled.

"Seriously," Buffy added as she removed several pairs of blue jeans from her dresser. "It's good to see you happy, Will. You've been on a Counting Crows/Alanis Morrisette binge ever since, well, you know--"

"His name is `Oz'," Willow answered, "and I won't go into screaming mimis if you say we broke up. That's what happened. Old news."

"Yeah, I know, but I know that it still hurts some. I remember what it was like when Angel finally left." 'I also remember a wonderful red-headed Wiccan holding me while I cried my eyes out,' Buffy thought. 'God I'm glad she's a part of my life.'

"Yeah," Willow sighed as she sorted through her sweater collection. "But both Angel and Oz did what they had to do. I'm good with that. Besides, I still have you and Xander and Giles, and I guess Anya," she strained to say it, "plus Tara. So friend-wise, I've got nothing to complain about."

"You and Tara've been pretty tight lately, I noticed."

"Yeah," Willow admitted. "She's good. She's the only person in the local Wicca group that seems to take it seriously. She and I work well together." She looked at Buffy's face, and noticed that she seemed a little distracted. "But don't worry, Buff, you're still my numero uno compadre. I would never forget you."

Like I ever could, Willow admitted silently to herself. Ever since she had met Tara, she had been conscious of her attraction to the shy young blond witch. So much like herself. Yet so different. Shortly after those weird silent demons, the Gentlemen, tried to steal the voices of the people of Sunnydale, Willow was confronted with her attraction for Tara. Whenever she was near Tara, she was aware of the erotic tension between the two of them. This excited Willow, and scared her too. She never entertained thoughts about loving another woman, especially since her conservative Jewish background frowned on homosexuality, but Tara had really gotten to her. But the last time she saw her, the tension was less. At first, Willow thought that she was going through a phase, that Tara was a one-time only infatuation.

But then she saw Buffy that one night last week. Sleeping soundly after a quiet patrol. Willow spent an entire hour just watching her best friend sleep, memorizing the lines of her face, the sweep of her neck, the delicate rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. When her sleep grew more fitful, with evidence of one of the many nightmares that plagued the Slayer's nights, Willow fought down a desperate urge to climb into Buffy's bed and hold her, to protect her from whatever was harming her in her mind.

More and more, she started to notice Buffy. The long blond hair, the graceful neck and waist, the firm muscles of her arms and legs from all her working out as a Slayer. The perfectly proportioned athletic body. Man, if it weren't for the Slaying, she could be an Olympic gold medalist easy. And last but not least, that wonderfully expressive mouth. On those infrequent occasions when she did smile, Buffy could exorcise storm clouds. Those bright sweet lips, what would they taste like? Ooh, bad Willow! At some point, Willow didn't know when, it dawned on her.

She may have been attracted to Tara.

But she was in love with Buffy.

In the brief silence that followed these thoughts, the Sting song was closing. Among the last lines of the song were two that thoroughly encapsulated what Buffy meant to Willow, what Willow could never confide in her friend for fear of losing her;

"You're the hub of my rotation,
You're the sum of my equation."

"It still hurts a little," she continued, trying to distract herself from these decidedly unwholesome thoughts, "but you know what hurts more? It's knowing that I'd been a total bitch while dealing."

"Willow Rosenberg, you listen to me now, you are many things, most if not all of them wonderful, but you are not now, nor have you ever been a bitch."

"Huh, aren't you the one who nearly married Spike because of my stupid spell?"

Buffy winced at the thought of her happy-making spell a few weeks back, and its wacky consequences. "I didn't say you weren't accident prone, I said you weren't a bitch."

"Okay," Willow conceded, "maybe `Bitch' is too strong a word. But I can't think of anything else that fits."

Buffy thought for a second, and suggested, "How about, `in touch with your inner Cordelia'?" This reference to their sometime friend got a laugh out of Willow.

"Oh, speaking of Her Royal Skankiness," Willow remembered, "I got an e-mail from her."

"Is she still working for Angel?" Buffy asked.

"Uh-huh. And guess who else they ran into?"

"Uh, Jennifer Love Hewitt?"

"Ha, ha. Wesley."

Buffy dropped her head in her right hand at the name of her wannabe watcher and groaned. "Wesley "Stiff-upper-lip-while-spine-goes-gelatinous" Price? I guess that Angel's curse still holds. First Cordelia, now Wes."

"I already sent a sympathy e-mail card." Willow answered as she pulled one more sweater from the closet.

"Oh, Will?" Buffy asked. "I know that you'll be spending Chanukah with your folks, but you got plans for New Year's Eve?" "Nada." "Mom wanted me to invite the Scooby Gang over for a Y2K survival party. You in? It's kinda pot luck, but--"

"I'll bring the guacamole," Willow volunteered. "You bringing Riley?"

"Uh, no." Buffy suddenly sounded less than sure. "Riley and me, we're taking some time apart."

"Oh?" Willow's heart threatened to leap out of her chest when she heard this news. Was this an opportunity for her and Buffy to--she dashed these thoughts from her mind immediately. Buffy was confiding in her, it was time for best-friend mode, not potential lover mode. Taking supreme control of her voice so that it wouldn't squeak, she asked, "Was it something he said?"

"More like what he didn't say," Buffy answered. "Like, `Oh, by the way, Buffy, I'm with a paramilitary demon-hunting organization called the Initiative. You're cool with that, right?'"

"Paramilitary--" Willow started putting two and two together and hoping the answer wasn't twenty-two. "You mean those guys that `fixed' our favorite Sting wannabe Spike?"

"Them's the ones. I found out about that during that incident a couple of weeks ago with the Gentlemen. I was fighting one Gentleman off, some khaki Rambo-ettes show up. I'm fighting, I don't notice it's Riley until he nearly pulls some kind of ray gun on me and I draw a crossbow on him. Not exactly the high-point of romance. We agreed that we had to talk, but so far that's all we agreed on. Except that we need to take a step back. He'll be heading for Iowa to spend Christmas with his family, I'll be with Mom, we need the time apart to think, y'know?" "Aw Jeez, Buffy," Willow answered, genuinely moved by sympathy for her friend. She turned to Buffy and gave her a friendly arm around the shoulders. "I was rooting for you two."

"Hey, maybe it'll still work out," Buffy said half-heartedly. "I just wish I knew more about the Initiative to trust them. To trust Riley. He's the first guy I really liked since Angel left, I just wanted someone normal."

"Maybe if he's a demon hunter, and you're a vampire slayer, you could go into business together. Two slayers, no waiting!"

"I dunno, like I said, there's something about the Initiative that has my Spider-sense going off the meter. Still, it would be nice to love someone who could understand why I do what I do."

'Like me,' Willow thought but didn't say.

She would have liked to hold on to her friend forever, but real life interrupted in the form of a ringing telephone. "I'd better answer that," stammered Willow, as she disengaged their hug. "It could be the phone." She wasn't sure, but Willow could have sworn that Buffy was reluctant to let go as she was.

She picked up the handset and started talking; "Hello. Oh, Mrs. Summers. How are...Buffy? Nothing's wrong, she's...Please, Mrs. Summers, she's fine. I don't understand..."

Buffy's attention had turned toward the phone conversation between her best friend and her mother. Willow's voice sounded more distressed as she spoke, evidently mirroring her mother on the other end. "I assure you that she's fine. I...I'm standing not four feet from her...No, Mrs. Summers, I'm not covering up for her, I'm...Just a second." She handed the handset to Buffy, saying, "Your mother sounds nearly hysterical. I can't understand a word she's saying. Can you talk to her?"

"I'll try," Buffy answered as she took the handset and began to speak into it. "Hey, Mom? Yes, it's me. Mom? Mom, are you crying? Calm down, Mom, slow down... breathe...inhale...and exhale. Okay. Tell me everything from the beginning. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Hmmm. Yeah." She listened intently for a few more seconds, and then answered, "Okay, Mom. This is why having a Slayer for a daughter is a good thing, `cause this is the kind of thing I deal with all the time. I'll call Giles and the gang, and we'll meet you at home and figure this thing out. Don't worry, we'll get the 411 on this. Okay, I'll be there in ten. `Bye." Buffy placed her finger on the cradle button, and then started to dial Giles' house. She shifted into full Slayer-mode as she spoke to Willow; "Scooby Gang situation, Wills! Defcon Four!"

"Something wrong with your mom?"

"Apparently. According to her, I'm lying on her sofa in her living room. Unconscious, and missing my right arm!" She waited for Giles to answer the phone. Willow stood beside her friend, a vague dread creeping up on her soul.

It was going to be one of those nights.

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Rupert Giles' townhouse;

"Now the `D' and the `A' and the `M' and the `N'
And the `A' and the `T and the `I-O-N'!
Lose your face, lose your name,
Then get ready for eternal flame!"

Anya bounced along to the swing-rock stylings of Squirrel Nut Zipper, in what she called `low-impact aerobics', while Xander, who sat on the couch and watched her work, would call it `a religious experience'. The earthbound demon, who had in her former life wreaked terrible vengeance against men, now seemed to live to please one man, Xander Harris. Her total lack of social graces or any sort of tact however, has led to some interesting confrontations since she and Xander became, in her own characteristic turn of phrase, "orgasm buddies".

Although he had been living in his parents' basement since he finished high school and drifted from job to job, he and Anya preferred to hang out at Giles' place. The former watcher and unofficial den father for Buffy and the Slayerettes was slightly more accommodating than Xander's uncaring parents. The fact was that he found something admirable in Xander; his glib humor in the face of danger, his unwavering courage, even when he claimed to be shaking in his boots. He admired that quality in him.

It would be a cold day in the Hellmouth, however, before he admitted it out loud.

Giles entered the room with a hot cup of Darjeeling as Anya concluded her dancing. "Xander Harris," he griped, "don't you have anything better to do than watch your girlfriend display her body in such a vulgar fashion?"

"Not a thing in the world," Xander replied with a smile that seemed to extend beyond the confines of his face.

"The man is a walking hormone," he griped to Anya.

"And this is a bad thing, how?" she answered, her grin matching Xander's.

"Meet Mrs. Walking Hormone," Xander extended his hand to Anya, who grabbed it and allowed him to pull her on his lap. Giles threw his hands up in disgust and sat down on his leather highback chair.

"You two are a perfect match," he grumbled. Desperately hoping to change the topic of conversation, he asked, "Have either of you two seen Spike?" Giles had recently become the host to the neutered vampire, once one of Buffy's most implacable enemies, now a pathetic shell of his former malevolent self.

"I think he said something about seeing `The Sixth Sense' for the fifteenth time," Xander said. "I think he only goes for the first fifteen minutes, long enough to shout from the back row, `Bruce Willis's character is dead', before being bounced."

"Charming to the last," Giles harumphed as he sipped his tea. "I suppose as long as he's under the influence of the Initiative and their implant, he'll be no danger to others."

"I don't understand why we allow him to live," Anya commented as she combed her hands through Xander's hair. "I mean, he's a vampire, Buffy's a vampire slayer, I say we get those two together and let her do what comes naturally."

"While I echo your sentiments, Anya," Giles admitted, "he's of more value to us alive. He's our only link to the Initiative, and we need all the information we can get on them. Besides, as long as we can keep tabs on him, he's no threat. I'd rather have him where I can keep an eye on him."

"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, is that it?" Anya asked.

"Something like that," Giles started to expound when the phone rang. Xander picked up the phone and greeted the caller; "Cavanagh's Crematorium! Hey, Buffster, `sup? Sure, I'll get him for you. Yo, G-Man!" He handed the handset to Giles, who took it silently, having given up the long fight to stop Xander from calling him `G-Man'.

"Hello, Buffy. Yes. Yes. One arm, you say. Yes. I can understand how she would be upset. We'll be right over. Do you need a lift? We'll be there in five minutes. See you then." He handed the handset back to Xander, who hung it up. "There's some sort of trouble at Mrs. Summers' house." He explained the situation as Buffy explained it to him.

"One arm, you say?" Anya mused. "That's one less than most people."

"This is serious, Anya," Giles snapped at the ex-demon. "Either someone is playing a cruel joke on Buffy's mother, or this is a sign of something far more sinister. Either way, we have to get to the bottom of it."

"Right, Giles," Xander stood up, and in his best Adam West-era Batman voice, said to Anya, "To the Watchermobile!"

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In the cramped confines of Giles' Citroen, Willow became more acutely aware of Buffy's presence. Xander and Anya were in the back seat, getting cozy, and Willow's reaction to having to sit next to them when Giles picked up her and Buffy was summed up in two words; "Eww much?" From the days when she was nursing the Mother of All Adolescent Crushes on Xander (she always capitalized the words when she thought of them), she had been uncomfortable with the girls Xander would date. First Cordy, Queen C herself, now Anya, the former vengeance demon. Willow still remembered how Anya had used her to summon an evil vampire Willow from a parallel universe. So to make the trip more tolerable, she leaned forward, to where Buffy was riding shotgun.

This placed her head in close proximity with Buffy's, and her nose right near where Buffy normally dabs her perfume. The subtle floral smell interacted with Buffy's natural body smell, and the mix was nearly overpowering for Willow. She tried to block the increasingly sexy thoughts she had been nursing regarding her best friend, and concentrate on other things.

"You know, Buffy," Willow commented, "I know we call ourselves the Scooby Gang, but there are times when I wish that we really were like the Scooby Gang."

"Explain the logic, Wills," Buffy inquired.

"You know, we'd come upon a haunted house, or an abandoned carnival, then we'd get chased by a vampire or demon, then we'd chase him back, all to the tune of some lame `60s- esque music, then we'd all land on him in a dog-pile, then take off the mask, an it'd turn out to be Mr. Deevers, the disgruntled groundskeeper."

"And he would have gotten away with it to, if it weren't for them meddling kids!" Buffy shouted happily.

"I get dibs on Shaggy!" Xander chimed in.

"What does that make me then?" pouted Anya. "If you're Shaggy, Buffy's Daphne, and Willow's Velma..."

"Let's put it to you this way," Willow answered with an evil grin. "How do you like your Scooby snacks?" Anya shot Willow a look that would melt ice at fifteen yards.

"How about Sandy Duncan on a guest shot?" Buffy offered. "Besides, why does Willow get stuck with Velma? She's much better looking, and has never lost her glasses once!"

"Hey, I could be Fred," Willow squealed.

"Nah," Xander said, partially distracted by something Anya was doing with her right hand. "That means you'd have to wear an ascot."

"I'll pass," Willow conceded the point to her childhood friend.

Giles, for his part, ignored this compelling discussion, as he often did. He didn't grudge them their interests, far from it. He simply thought them beneath him. However, he did understand their need to talk about such meaningless minutiae, especially when dealing with menaces like the Master and Angelus on a regular basis. Sort of like whistling past the graveyard.

"Hey, meddling kids," Buffy interrupted. "Looks like we'll have to table this conversation. Mom's house, dead ahead." Giles pulled up to the curb, and he and the four Scoobs bailed out of the car. Buffy and Willow led the way to Mrs. Summers' porch, and Buffy slowly opened the door.

"Hey, Mom?" she called out. She saw her mother tending to a figure lying on the couch. Joyce turned toward the door as she heard her daughter's voice, and saw her face peek in the door. Joyce stood up, walked to the door on unsteady legs, and stopped just short of Buffy. Buffy saw the haggard look on her mother's face, the red-rimmed eyes, the copious rivulets of tears streaking her face. Now her face was contorted into a look of startlement at the sight of her daughter.

"Buffy?" she asked hesitantly. "Is that really you? Oh, dear God..." she could speak no more. She dissolved into tears again as she grabbed her daughter in a desperate hug. All the while she murmured, "Oh my God, my baby's all right!"

"Yeah, Mom," Buffy responded, her voice straining against the powerful hug. "And if you could loosen up your grip, I could maintain that trend." Joyce immediately let go of her daughter, apologizing profusely. "Hey, Mom, it's okay. From your voice on the phone, you got a serious wiggins."

"So we're here to de-wigginize the place," Xander answered as he and Anya entered the room.

"May we see her?" Giles, bringing up the rear, asked.

"Oh, certainly, Rupert," Joyce answered. "I'm sorry. It's just been a series of shocks, seeing my Buffy...well, look at her!" she motioned toward the couch. Buffy and her cohorts gathered around the couch, and immediately understood why Joyce Summers was so rattled.

She lay sprawled upon the couch, wearing clothes that hadn't been washed, or probably changed, in at least several weeks. She slept fitfully, her exhaustion finally catching up with her. Her legs, visible through shredded jeans, were badly scraped and bruised, and her left arm bore severe scars. Her right arm was missing, hacked off at the shoulder apparently. Her hair was matted against a drawn and roughened face.

The face of Elizabeth Anne "Buffy" Summers.

For fifteen seconds, no one dared speak. Finally, Xander announced, "I believe I speak for everyone when I say, `Jinkies'!"